We think of outer space as distant and unreachable, but in fact events out in the cosmos may have helped and hindered the evolution of life on Earth.
Vampirism — piercing or cutting animal skin to suck or lap up blood — is known throughout the animal kingdom. Mosquitoes come to mind, plus ticks, mites, vampire bats, and the vampire finch of the Galapagos Islands. But … vampire moths? Wait, let's take a step back, did you say the vampire finch of the Galapagos Islands? Yes. They're a subspecies of the sharp-beaked ground finch that outnumber every other finch species on all of the islands combined. While they don't seem to bother the adult Boobies whose blood they drink, they may be fatal to chicks* and even crack open eggs. Right, what of those vampire moths? [more inside]
The Inevitable Evolution of Bad Science "Now, imagine you’re a researcher who wants to game this system. Here’s what you do. Run many small and statistically weak studies. Tweak your methods on the fly to ensure positive results. If you get negative results, sweep them under the rug. Never try to check old results; only pursue new and exciting ones. These are not just flights of fancy. We know that such practices abound."
The fossil remains of Helicoprion are limited to some crushed cartilage and its teeth, which aren't unusual for fossil remains of sharks and shark-like fish. But those teeth are unique: formed in a spiral saw-type formation, known as a spiral dentition or toothwhorl, with the older teeth pushed into the center of the spiral by the newer teeth. Since a whorl was first discovered in 1899, there have been a number of theories about how the teeth were used, leading to numerous creative but largely untested reconstructions, until 2013, when a new CT scan enabled the researchers to make a new, improved reconstruction of Helicoprion. That scientific article is not so visually exciting, so let's enjoy Ray Troll's illustrations, and Mary Parrish's updated illustration. [more inside]
The Evolution of Bacteria on a “MEGA-Plate” Petri Dish - a cinematic approach to visualizing drug resistance
From deities to data - "For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, during the modern era, humanism gradually shifted authority from deities to people... Now, a fresh shift is taking place. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data." [more inside]
67 Years of Lego Sets
I started to wonder how Legos evolved from the sets I remember from my childhood to what they are today. As an analyst, I turned to data for answers. I used Plotly and Mode Python Notebooks to explore the data.
Meet Graham, an interactive sculpture developed by a trauma surgeon, a crash investigation expert and a Melbourne artist to show what humans might look like, if they had evolved features to withstand car crashes (via)
The Economic Lessons of Star Trek's Money-Free Society - "[Manu Saadia] points to technologies like GPS and the internet as models for how we can set ourselves on the path to a Star Trek future. 'If we decide as a society to make more of these crucial things available to all as public goods, we're probably going to be well on our way to improving the condition of everybody on Earth', he says. But he also warns that technology alone won't create a post-scarcity future... 'This is something that has to be dealt with on a political level, and we have to face that.' " (via) [more inside]
But let’s assume SpaceX, or an international coalition led by NASA, or China’s space agency eventually figure out the engineering and financing of a Mars colony. Let’s also assume the biology of reproduction in space, and on foreign worlds, is a solvable problem. After homo sapiens becomes a multi-planet species, the question becomes, would we remain a single species of humanity?
In his follow-up to Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari envisions what a 'useless class' of humans might look like as AI advances and spreads - "I'm aware that these kinds of forecasts have been around for at least 200 years, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and they never came true so far. It's basically the boy who cried wolf, but in the original story of the boy who cried wolf, in the end, the wolf actually comes, and I think that is true this time." [more inside]
How Technology Is Changing Our Hands by Darian Leader [The Guardian] Doctors predict that our increasing use of computers and mobile phones will permanently alter our hands. What will this mean for the way we touch, feel and communicate? [more inside]
Dictyostelium discoideum - dicty to its friends - has long been recognized as the world's most fascinating slime mold. A (previously) has a good introduction from a decade ago. You might be fascinated by their life cycle, which goes from individual cells, to animal-like slug, to plant-like fruiting body. You might be fascinated by their starvation-prompted altruism, in which most cells give up their lives so that a few can reproduce, and cheaters are punished. You might be fascinated by the way they farm and protect their crops. (Or maybe the farmed bacteria are farming them; it's hard to tell.) Or you might be fascinated by a brand new study about the DNA nets they use to trap and kill pathogens.
Siddhartha Mukherjee's latest New Yorker article "Same but different: How epigenetics can blur the line between nature and nurture" has attracted searing criticism from heavyweight researchers in the field. Mukherjee responds but doesn't retract...
The butthole is one of the finest innovations in the past 540 million years of animal evolution. Why watching comb jellies poop has stunned evolutionary biologists.
Newly discovered plastic-eating bacterium can break down PET - "A team of Japanese researchers, led by Dr Shosuke Yoshida from the Kyoto Institute of Technology, have discovered a new species of bacteria that produces a never-before-seen plastic-eating enzyme... Human-manufactured PET has only been around for around 70 years, suggesting that this trait has evolved only relatively recently." [more inside]
The Plant Food Tree of Life leads you through the major plant foods and their evolutionary relationships. It is a complement to the list view of the same information, in which each link takes you to a related article at the excellent blog, The Botanist in the Kitchen.
An evolutionary burst 540 million years ago filled the seas with an astonishing diversity of animals. The trigger behind that revolution is finally coming into focus , according to the journal Nature. [more inside]
We're the only animals with chins, and no one knows why. "I always get entertaining emails from lay people trying to help me so let me thank you in advance for what I'm about to receive."
Creatures avoiding planks - "After around a thousand generations of training, the agents became half decent at avoiding planks. Please see the final result in this demo." [more inside]
Sure, we may be a little weird compared to our close relatives for not having a baculum (penis bone), and maybe that's the sort of thing you want to explain for whatever reason, but does human penis size and shape need a uniquely human story? Assuming it's correlated to the vagina like it probably is in many other species, then no it doesn't... unless the size and shape of the human vagina has an exceptional story. Does it? We wouldn't know. [more inside]
How do you get both cooperation and promiscuity, a rare combination in a world dominated by selfish genes? The key, it appears - at least in birds - is long life. "Promiscuous cooperative species are exceptionally long lived."
Humans 2.0 - "With CRISPR, scientists can change, delete, and replace genes in any animal, including us. Working mostly with mice, researchers have already deployed the tool to correct the genetic errors responsible for sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and the fundamental defect associated with cystic fibrosis. One group has replaced a mutation that causes cataracts; another has destroyed receptors that H.I.V. uses to infiltrate our immune system." [more inside]
Øyvind Thorsby, creator of multiple strangely charming webcomics (previously), has recently begun his fifth series, Trixie Slaughteraxe for President (link is to the first page). Thorsby's comics bear multiple trademarks: distinctively simplistic art, strange creatures with strange adaptations to their environments, creative applications for magical and technologically advanced objects and phenomena, and, of course, complicated farcical situations often involving desperate wacky schemes. A list of his comics (including the new hosting for his first three comics) is inside. Content warning: violence, swearing and sexual themes. [more inside]
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari - "The book delivers on its madly ambitious subtitle by in fact managing to cover key moments in the developmental history of humankind from the emergence of Homo Sapiens to today's developments in genetic engineering." Also btw, check out Harari on the myths we need to survive, re: fact/value distinctions and their interrelationships.
The Future of (Post)Capitalism - "Paul Mason shows how, from the ashes of the recent financial crisis, we have the chance to create a more socially just and sustainable global economy." (previously; via) [more inside]
Yes, THAT Daily Mail... This is a great article considering it is from the Daily Mail. A comprehensive study may have revealed how the long neck of the giraffe evolved.
From the Neurologica blog: "Creationists are engaged in science denial—denying evolutionary science. The purpose of denial is doubt and confusion, so they don’t have to create and defend a coherent explanation of the origins of life on Earth. They don’t have to provide an explanation for all the available evidence. All they have to do is muddy the waters as much as possible." [more inside]
This Face Changes the Human Story. But How? This is the story of one of the greatest fossil discoveries of the past half century, and of what it might mean for our understanding of human evolution.
Daniel Dennett, known for having previously explained thinking, religion, and consciousness, recently spoke at the Royal Institution where he did a most excellent job of explaining memes [1-hour video].
"Humans as Superorganisms: How Microbes, Viruses, Imprinted Genes and Other Selfish Entities Shape Our Behavior" by Peter Kramer and Paola Bressan discusses the idea that an individual homo sapiens is only one component of the human superorganism we call a person, focusing on the psychological and psychiatric ramifications thereof. (Paola Bressan previously.)
Recent genetic discoveries are revealing this is a more accurate analogy for human origins than the "branching tree" model. John Hawks discusses the role of connectivity in human evolution in a clip from the new PBS series First Peoples.
Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life - "Please give this sermon a try. I think it has much in it that will be of interest to a wide range of readers: philosophy, cosmology, evolutionary theory, and science fiction, as well as theology. And nothing in it depends on believing in God at all." Abstract: As an enlightened form of atheism, I turn to teleotheism. Teleotheism is the view that God comes at the end, not at the beginning, where I am defining “God” as “the greatest of all things that can come true.” In this view, the quest to discover what are the greatest things that are possible is of the utmost importance. The best of our religious heritage is just such an effort to discover the greatest things that are possible. (via; previously)
Yesterday, Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and his colleagues reported finding a jaw in Ethiopia that belonged to an human relative that lived between 3.3 and 3.5 million years ago. Their article appears today in Nature.
Some Paths to the True Knowledge[*] - "Attention conservation notice: A 5000+ word attempt to provide real ancestors and support for an imaginary ideology I don't actually accept, drawing on fields in which I am in no way an expert. Contains long quotations from even-longer-dead writers, reckless extrapolation from arcane scientific theories, and an unwarranted tone of patiently explaining harsh, basic truths. Altogether, academic in one of the worst senses. Also, spoilers for several of MacLeod's novels, notably but not just The Cassini Division. Written for, and cross-posted to, Crooked Timber's seminar on MacLeod, where I will not be reading the comments."
Scientists say they have reversed a bit of bird evolution in the lab and re-created a dinosaurlike snout in developing chickens.
But sometimes the evolving virus can unlock a response that holds HIV in check. Levy told Brothers he had a drop of luck in his blood. His white blood cells seemed to secrete tiny amounts of a substance that controls HIV. At the time, Brothers was only one of several hundred people, out of tens of millions with HIV, known to control HIV in this way. Levy believes an unidentified protein is responsible, and isolating and harnessing it might allow scientists to produce a revolutionary HIV treatment.
Biologist/blogger PZ Myers provides a nice introduction to evolutionary theory, and explains how classical Darwinism is distorted by proponents of scientific racism and other pseudoscientific movements.
This is my vision of life. A conversation with evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. (Video and transcript)
"What could you possibly have in common with a mushroom, or a dinosaur, or even a bacterium? More than you might think. In this Lab, you’ll puzzle out the evolutionary relationships linking together a spectacular array of species. Explore the tree of life and get a front row seat to what some have called the greatest show on Earth. That show is evolution." Evolution Lab is a educational game created by the Life on Earth Project and NOVA Labs
Associate Professor Rana Dajani describes why she teaches evolution to Muslim students in Jordan.
“The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” was written by Harvard biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1979. Their critique of their own field of evolutionary biology spilled out of the Ivory Tower onto the pages of general intellectual forums such as the New York Review of Books. I talked by phone with Lewontin on March 2 2015. In his mid-eighties, he is still scientifically active and could recall his collaboration with Gould in detail. Our conversation is highly relevant to the “Just so story” critique that is frequently leveled against Evolutionary Psychology.
The CRISPR Revolution [ungated: 1,2,3] - "Biologists continue to hone their tools for deleting, replacing or otherwise editing DNA and a strategy called CRISPR has quickly become one of the most popular ways to do genome engineering. Utilizing a modified bacterial protein and a RNA that guides it to a specific DNA sequence, the CRISPR system provides unprecedented control over genes in many species, including perhaps humans. This control has allowed many new types of experiments, but also raised questions about what CRISPR can enable." [more inside]
I’m occasionally told my life would be easier if I backed off from my relentless efforts to advance evolution education. Maybe so. But to shy away from emphasizing evolutionary biology is to fail as a biology teacher. I continue to teach biology as I do, because biology makes sense only in the light of evolution.
"Grandmother Fish is a book like no other I have seen"
We start with a delightfully drawn Grandmother Fish, who lived a long, long, long, long, long time ago and could wiggle and swim fast and had jaws to chomp with. At once, this is made personally relevant: "Can you wiggle? … Can you chomp?" We proceed by way of Grandmother Reptile, Grandmother Mammal and Grandmother Ape, to Grandmother Human, who lived a long time ago, could walk on two feet and talk and tell stories[more inside]
This Jay Is Evolving in a Very, Very Weird Way. As she gathered more and more data on different populations of the island scrub jays around Santa Cruz Island, Katie Langin, a biologist at Colorado State University, had a revelation: The birds, members of one single species, had split into two varieties in different habitats. Ever since Darwin and his famous finches, biologists have thought that in order for a species to diverge into two new species, the two populations had to be physically isolated. Those finches, for instance, each live on a different Galapagos island, where their special circumstances have resulted in specialized bill shapes. Yet the two varieties of island scrub jay (they haven’t technically speciated—yet) live on the same tiny island. If they wanted to meet each other for a brunch of acorns and/or pine nuts and perhaps later some mating, they could just fly right over. [more inside]
Leafy, verdant Elysia chlorotica (the Eastern Emerald Elysia) is a sea slug with a secret: they photosynthesize. These marauding mollusks slurp up chloroplasts from their favorite algal snack, Vaucheria litorea, incorporating them into their own digestive cells and putting them to work soaking up sunshine (and, incidentally, acquiring a healthy green glow). But how? [more inside]